Monday, July 29, 2013

Experts for America: Like Teach for America, only Better!

(Dateline: Washington, D. C.) Today, for the second time in less than a month, the U. S. education establishment was rocked by stunning news (See:  NFL Adopts Common Core Playbook.) A secret committee of twenty-five veteran teachers, known as Project 98.6°, and working at the behest of President Barack Obama, today announced results of their deliberations.

Nancy Potts, spokesperson for the group, and a classroom veteran of nineteen years, announced a new federal initiative called “Experts for America.”

The program is to mirror “Teach for America.”

Speaking to a gathering of school reform experts, executives of companies hoping to increase their role in public school education, and concerned politicians hoping to extend their tenure in office, Potts noted that the time to solve the nation’s school crisis was now.

“All the big names in school reform will be involved,” she noted. “Bill Gates. Wendy Kopp, CEO of Teach for America. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.”

These remarks were met with thunderous applause.

“Every expert in this auditorium will play a role. Joel I. Klein, former chancellor of the New York City Public Schools, you will have a chance to teach. Richard Whitmire, acclaimed education author, Davis Guggenheim, producer of Waiting for Superman, Brent Staples, editorial writer for the New York Times. Yes, all of you will have a real chance to teach. Michelle Rhee—the most experienced expert among you, will be your mentor and a colleague.”

Potts had trouble stifling a laugh. 

Quickly, she turned the microphone over to another member of the secret group, Mr. Horace Mann, an Ohio middle school history teacher for the last twenty-four years.

“First, let me tell you what an honor it is to address you all,” Mann began. “Normally, I spend my time in a 25-by-25 foot room, surrounded by hormone-addled teens. Now, here I am, talking to the men and women who do all the talking about fixing America’s schools.

“When our group first met,” he added, “we began by asking, ‘What would be the best way to improve America’s schools?’

“We heard what you were saying. What we really needed, you all said, were better teachers. Mr. Staples, you have no idea how much you helped. When you reviewed Mr. Guggenheim’s movie, you wrote: ‘Public schools generally do a horrendous job of screening and evaluating teachers, which means that they typically end up hiring and granting tenure to any warm body that comes along.’

“That was when we decided to call ourselves Project 98.6°,” Ms. Potts interjected helpfully, again trying her hardest not to laugh.

Mann continued:  “Oh, yes. Mr. Bloomberg, we heard you too. When you said the biggest problem in education was teachers hired “from the bottom 20% of their [college] classes, and not of the best schools” we stood in awe of your brilliance. We listened to you all and suddenly it was clear. Who better to save the children than you here in this audience today?”

“So we came up with a plan: ‘Experts for America,’” Potts noted happily.

“With the aid of the Selective Service and approval from President Barack Obama,” Mann explained, “a new draft will now be instituted. All education experts between the ages of 23-75, all writers of books about education, all executives of companies profiting from ties to public schools, will be subject to call to active duty.”

“We know this may come to most of you as a shock. But you will be committing to work for ten years—minimum—in the toughest public schools. None of that sissy two-year stuff like ‘Teach for America.’” Mann smiled.

“Ten years…I mean…you are committed to saving kids? Right?

“Here are a few assignments we already know:  Mr. Gates, you will teach students with severe behavior disorders at Marvin Gardens High School in Seattle. You will be replacing a teacher who was assaulted last May and has not recovered from a broken nose and jaw.”

“No, no,” Gates was heard to shout from a front row seat. “You don't understand. My education foundation only dispenses advice...”

Mann’s face hardened. “You will do just fine. As for you, Mr. Klein and Mr. Bloomberg, you favored grading schools in New York City. It seems perfectly fitting, then, that you work with some of the 20,000 homeless children in your city. You’ll be evaluated on how they perform on standardized tests. Should they fail to make adequate yearly progress, you will be required to devote another year to ‘Experts for America,’ until you finally get it right.

“We need you, too, Mr. Guggenheim. You made a movie about five wonderful families, all of whom wanted the best education for their kids. You made fixing schools seem simple.

“Now you and Mr. Staples will have the chance. You will work at a special charter school, with children of parents who didn’t sign up for any lottery, who did not care about what school their kids attended. And trust me when I say, parent conferences are going to be great! You will work with the dad who threatened his daughter with an AK-47 when her grades were low. You will be charged with educating the older son of the man who stuck his six-month-old daughter in the freezer to stop her crying. You will teach a disabled boy, born ten years ago addicted to heroin because his single mother was (and still is) a drug abuser.

“You will have the chance to fix it all. And as a bonus, you will work with the son of the mother who chased the principal out of his school last spring. She was wielding a large butcher knife. That happened at my wife’s school.”

Guggenheim and Staples both looked stunned.

“Ms. Rhee, you are going back to D.C. to straighten out the mess in one of the schools where you handed out big cash rewards when standardized test scores dramatically improved—where cheating was soon shown to be rampant and wrong answers on test after test after test were erased. And you will be issued special pencils.”

“Yep, no erasers,” Potts interjected.

When Mann added that Whitmire would be drafted to work alongside Rhee—that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan would be assigned to a Chicago charter school, working only with teen gang members—that Kopp would be joining him—that executives from Pearson, the standardized testing-company, would be sent to Florida to teach in a high poverty school—howls for mercy filled the room.

“The time to turn hot air into action…IS NOW!” Ms. Potts shouted into the microphone. “And don’t worry. You’re all so smart!!! Besides, for the rest of us, watching you fix the schools will mean ten years of fabulous fun!”

Ms. Potts curtsied.

Mr. Mann bowed.

Both smiled broadly and exited from the stage.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Finland Has Smarter Teachers!

Listen up, America’s public school teachers! It’s time to face facts. Finland has fantastic teachers. Finland’s teachers are great. Finland’s teachers are way smarter than you.

This teacher-intelligence-gap is serious business.

Haven’t you been paying attention! In 2010, in a competition involving fifteen-year-olds from around the world, Finland’s teens ranked first overall. In a test of reading, math and science they stomped our poor kids. By the time the tests ended America’s fifteen-year-olds looked like they had been run over by herds of angry reindeer.

Finland came in second in reading, second in math, first in science, and first in total score. (See chart below.) The United States placed 14th in reading, 25th in math, 17th in science and 14th overall.

Just look at that chilling chart—America’s failing teachers! What a disgrace! Our fifteen-year-olds were clobbered by the Canadians in reading. They were pummeled by the Poles in math. They were slaughtered by the Swiss in science. 

And just how do we explain this whole sordid mess? 

All figures for the 34 member nations of the
Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. (OECD)

In a recent New York Times editorial, Harvard associate professor Jal Metha set out to use his own giant brain and answer that question and made it clear that despite decades of school reform in the United States we were still missing the point.

What is the point you might well ask? Increasing poverty, maybe? Gangs and school shootings? Drugs? Fathers like the one who recently decided to stop his infant daughter from crying by sticking the baby in the freezer? Nope.

None of that.

According to Metha, high-scoring countries like Finland have smarter teachers—“drawn from the top third of college graduates, rather than the bottom 60 percent as is the case in the United States.” In other words the problems in our schools can be summed up in two words:

“Dumb educators.”

Well, excuse me for being obtuse. As a retired teacher, it may be I am too dimwitted to follow the logic of an esteemed Harvard professor. And for that matter he’s not alone in his criticism of American public school teachers. (See for example: Bloomberg, Michael R.)

Still, I do look at those scores from 2010 and wonder. Even the list is suspicious. No one seems to mention that sixty-five nations were actually tested. So: finishing 14th and 17th and 25th doesn’t seem quite as bad. Technically, it might also be less alarming if we noted that U. S. students tied for 12th in reading and beat the Germans, Spanish and French.

It might also have a calming effect if we asked: “Where are the most populous nations on this list? Where are Brazil and Egypt, Pakistan and Vietnam?

Fifteen of the top-20 most populous countries are absent from the chart.

Well then, what about Finland—with all those smart teachers—and 5.3 million people? Perhaps, comparing Finland and the United States isn’t exactly right. What if we focused on Wisconsin—with 5.7 million people—instead?

If you don’t mind digging into other reports from the OECD (“Education at a Glance: 2011”) a picture begins to form that is not nearly so grim. If we consider a chart showing percentage of students who have attained “upper secondary education” (roughly speaking, those who have graduated from high school), Finland drops to 9th place, with a minuscule lead over the United States.

We finish 12th out of 35 nations.

What happens if we drop some of our worst performing states (Alaska, Georgia and Oregon). If we then compare Finland and top-scoring states in the Union (or Finland and Wisconsin alone), Finland’s teachers suddenly don’t look so great.

Study OECD statistics a little more and a nuanced perspective begins to take form. Students from Australia, Belgium, the Netherlands and New Zealand outscored ours in reading, math and science. Nevertheless, all four nations end up graduating a lower percentage of those who enter their schools than does the United States (Same report, above, p. 32).

It’s a false construct, really, this idea that teachers in this country are so dumb, and critics and college professors need to calm down. Are we really going to say, based on these kinds of comparisons, that Hungarian math teachers are smarter than ours? Because if we do, we should note that Hungarian reading teachers are morons. Does Norway, by comparison with the United States, have smart reading teachers and dumb science instructors? Is that what the results from 2010 prove? Well, then, how about Israel’s pitiful educators? Those poor people must be drooling fools.

Or: the picture may not be as simple as the critics make it seem.

P. S.: The OECD reports that the U. S. has fallen to 16th in attainment of “tertiary education,” or % of students with college degrees. Still, in a ranking of thirty-six advanced nations, we remain ahead of Switzerland (18th), Finland (19th) and Germany (mired in 27th place).

If we follow the kind of logic used by Professor Metha, then we must assume his German counterparts are a pitiful collection of dolts.

According to the OECD, one out of every four college graduates
in the world was produced here in the United States.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

NFL Adopts Common Core Playbook--Copying Education Reforms

(Washington, D. C.) In a surprise news conference today U. S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell announced plans to improve NFL performance in coming seasons.

Unlike news conferences on education, which draw sparse crowds, representatives from hundreds of newspapers, television and radio networks, and ESPN, ESPN 2, ESPN for Kids and ESPN Tales from the Crypt were in attendance.

Mr. Duncan spoke first. “We are pleased to announce a partnership involving the U. S. Department of Education and the NFL,” he explained. “We will call this new effort to improve pro football ‘Race to the End Zone.’ All the leading school reform experts insist this approach will dramatically improve the quality of football play.”

“Frankly,” Commissioner Goodell admitted, “this joint effort developed out of a concern for failing NFL franchises. We have watched the brilliant successes wrought by Mr. Duncan and others like him in recent years and believe it is time to adopt a variety of sports reforms, similar to school reforms, and introduce them in our league. We believe with such changes in place the Cleveland Browns can finally reach the Super Bowl and win.”

“We in the NFL love the Common Core Curriculum that Mr. Duncan is pushing on schools here in D. C. and in forty-five states,” Goodell continued. “Just as he believes Common Core Curriculum can save the schools, we believe a Common Core Playbook will save our struggling teams. Beginning with the 2013 season every coach and every team will use the same playbook.”

A collective gasp went up from the audience. “Does Bill Belichick know about this?” a reporter from ABC wondered.

An MSNBC reporter shouted from the fifth row: “Do you truly believe if all teams run the same plays they’ll all have the same success?”

“Of course,” Mr. Duncan interjected. “It’s going to work in education, too. I promise. And I went to Harvard. So you have to listen to me.”

“You don’t know anything about NFL football…” a Fox Sports Channel representative pointedly remarked.

“Yes, well, Mr. Duncan never taught school, either,” Goodell offered in lame defense. “And look at the fantastic job he’s doing fixing U. S. schools. Only $4.35 billion spent on ‘Race to the Top’ and scores on standardized tests are soaring.”

At this point, reporters could be seen shooting each other strange looks. Frankly, none of them paid the slightest attention to stories about American education. So, for all they knew, Goodell might be telling the truth.

“We believe with this system in place every player can succeed,” the Commissioner added. “By 2020 we believe every player in the league will be proficient in blocking, tackling and pass catching.”

“Are you saying that a new playbook—nothing more than diagrams on paper—will magically change the game?” a representative of local television station WJLA wanted to know.

“From now on every quarterback will be calling the same plays,” Goodell replied. “In other words, all of them will play like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning.

“Even Mark Sanchez?” asked a dubious correspondent from the New York Post.

“That’s the beauty of the Common Core Playbook,” Duncan explained. “We draw up new standards—kind of like we said we would do under No Child Left Behind—but this time the standards really work, because I promise they will. After all, I’m really smart. Did I mention that I went to Harvard? See: all the running backs run the same plays and all succeed the same way, because the coaches don’t try to design their own schemes.”

“Naturally, all defenses will be set up in the same way,” the Commissioner added.

A young lady standing in the back of the auditorium raised a hand. The Secretary called on her to state her question.

“I’m sorry. I’m not a sports person. I’m just a third grade teacher visiting the capitol on vacation. Are you saying that if all coaches follow the same plays and all players follow the same offensive and defensive plans this will guarantee success for every player and every team?”

“Yes…” Duncan began; but the teacher had more to say.

“Wouldn’t it be wiser to let the coaches design their plays? Aren’t coaches skilled in their field and doesn’t knowledge gathered over many years in the game count for anything? Don’t players have different strengths and weaknesses, so that coaches must tailor plans to meet their needs? Don’t players, themselves, have a dramatic impact on their own success or failure during the games and the success of their teams? No  playbook in the world would have saved Aaron Hernandez if he was truly intent on committing murder this past week. And I’ve heard Peyton Manning studies more game film than anyone else…”

By now, Duncan was shifting nervously from foot to foot at the podium where he stood. “Did I mention I went to Harvard? I think we experts can fix the NFL, just like we’re fixing the schools! Pretty soon, we’ll be like Finland, whose students rank #1 in reading and math whenever international competitions are held. Just listen to me and all the other school reformers. By the way, I went to Harvard, in case you’ve forgotten.”

“I don’t think that guy knows s$%# about football,” a sportscaster from Chicago could be heard telling the teacher.

“I don’t think he knows anything about education, either,” she nodded glumly. Unlike school reformers she had learned about helping students by actually helping students for many years. She already knew what worked in a classroom and understood that writing a bunch of standards had almost nothing to do with real success.

(Standards in education, she realized, were like diet advice. Losing weight boiled down to motivation in the end.)

She tried one last question: “Mr. Duncan, I know experts say Finland’s scores are high because they have better teachers. Do you think we should copy their system in other ways? For example, their schools have no sports teams and focus entirely on academics. Might we copy them in that respect? Might we do away with organized sports in our schools?”

At that point pandemonium ensued, with shouting ESPN reporters and fainting sports columnists, and Goodell looking aghast. A Fox Sports correspondent jumped on stage and tried to wrestle the microphone away before Secretary Duncan could posit an answer. No one in the audience could even fathom the idea.

Insanity, surely, putting academics first—and right here in America, too!

The teacher smiled at the irony and exited from the room.

Here’s how Common Core Playbook will work: 
All teams will use identical plays.
Coaches' and players' strengths and weakness 
will no longer be paramount.
Written standards of play are clearly the key—
just as it now is in U. S. education.
It’s not “how you play the game.”
It’s a bureaucrat’s dream of how you play the game.

This is satire only; but real teachers know this is how dumb our leaders in education reform actually are


If you liked this post, you might like my book about teaching, Two Legs Suffice, now available on Amazon. 

My book is meant to be a defense of all good teachers and an explanation of what they can do, and what they cannot be expected to do without help.

Two Legs Suffice is also about what students, parents and others involved in education must also do if we want to truly enhance learning.